Saturday 28 December 2013

In memoriam Peter Geach

                                                Peter Geach (1916-2013)

As so often, you lift your head up briefly from the mince pies to discover the world has moved on a little and not in a good way.

The death of Peter Geach at 97 can hardly be described as tragic, but it does mark the passing of one of the great names of British Catholic philosophy. On a personal note, borrowing a (personally inscribed) copy of Geach's ( I think) Mental Acts from another Catholic philosopher sticks in my mind as a symbolic moment in my education, first, because it was further evidence of analytic philosophy's taking Aquinas seriously, second, because it was also further evidence of the sheer smartness of Catholic intellectual life, and, finally, because I thought it demonstrated extraordinary charity on the part of the lender to risk a cherished memento in the hands of a rather unreliable undergraduate. (A trust which, on that occasion at least, I didn't betray.) There is a sort of shadow of an apostolic succession in British Catholic intellectual life and much of it can be traced back through Anscombe and Geach.

Obituaries here (The Guardian) and here (Commonweal). From The Guardian, one of the better known anecdotes (of which there are many, some possibly true):

He and Anscombe were very traditional on matters of sexual morality, and in 1968 they toasted the Humanae Vitae encyclical, which forbade Catholics' use of contraception, with champagne. They were fairly liberal with their children, however, and dismissive of cleanliness or supervision. On opening the door to a policeman and a lost child, Geach shouted into the house: "Elizabeth, is it one of ours?" It was.

Requiem aeternam dona ei , Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to
take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a
pure virgin: grant that we, being regenerate and made thy
children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy
Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ thy son our Lord, who
liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one
God, world without end. Amen.

(From the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham.)

Happy Christmas! (Normal blogging service may be sporadic whilst I feast and make merry.)

Monday 23 December 2013

Advent antiphons: O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Isaiah, viii, 14:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

(For explanation, see here.)

Sunday 22 December 2013

Advent antiphons: O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

Haggai, ii, 7:

And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts.


(For explanation, see here.)

Saturday 21 December 2013

Advent antiphons: O Oriens

O Oriens

O Morning Star

splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

Wisdom. 7, 26:

For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness.

Hebrews, i, 3:

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high

Malachi, iv, 2:

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

(For explanation, see here.)

Friday 20 December 2013

Atheists are parasites

                                        An atheist worshipping round worms...

Oh, of course, atheists aren't really parasites -some are very thoughtful people- blah, blah, blah.

If I wasn't feeling slightly out of sorts this morning, I wouldn't have started the blogpost like that. (Other than a desire to trigger lots of hits from the enraged Dawkinsians. Welcome, lads! Only  five days to Jesus' birthday.) But quite apart from a slight headache, a combination of close encounters with atheism have triggered a slight cosmic dyspepsia (no doubt aided by a few too many late night glasses of Green Chartreuse which I'm not sure I actually like, but will go on drinking as a symbolic and material support for monasticism).

I finished yesterday an extremely long running debate with a regular cyberatheist commentator in the Catholic Herald combox. (I blogged a bit about it here, but returned to the fray afterwards.) Anyway, it didn't end particularly nicely with me provoking a hissy fit from him by suggesting in expounding his views on ethics he sounded like a nine year old pontificating about the flaws in quantum mechanics. I feel conflicted about this. I certainly wasn't being very nice to him but, equally, he was demonstrating insufferable smugness and ignorance. I'm a believer in the robust defence of truth: it does no one any favours if rubbish isn't named as such. However, I'm well aware of how easy it is to slide into personal vindictiveness on the internet. So I'll need to mull over my guilt here (which never puts me in a decent mood).

And then there are two recent cases of public atheism: the 'holiday' display of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in Florida (here) and the case of the LSE students wearing Jesus and Mo T-shirts who have managed to extract an apology from the university on their having been forced to remove the shirts during a Freshers' fair. (One of them appeared on the Today programme this morning along with a rather hassled university administrator: my sympathies were entirely with the administrator.)

                            Witty caption on T-shirt: Jesus: 'Hey'. Mohammed: 'How ya doin?'

Witty dialogue on T-shirt: Large banner: 'Stop drawing Holy Prophets in a disrespectful manner now.' Small banner: 'Religion is not  funny'. Mohammed:  'If this doesn’t work I say we start burning stuff.'

There are, of course, serious questions of free speech here: the right to criticize, the right to offend. I don't feel that strongly that, in either case, the wrong decision has been made: although there's clearly something to be said about the wrongness of welcoming Muslim students in particular to a university with an image that tells them they're not going to find this a very friendly place, or with disrupting a religious image and festival with a dissonant display, on the whole, I'm usually going to go down the route of favouring free speech and sucking up the offence.

But apart from the question of the right to present these images or displays, it's quite obvious that they are both trivial, sniggering examples of New Atheism's inability to do much other than suck onto religion like an ill-tempered lamprey. I remember trying to find similar cartoons to Mo and Jesus funny when I was an atheist: I had sufficient taste even then to recognize they were the sort of things that you found yourself pretending were funny because you had signed up to the cause rather than because of any intrinsic merit. (The FSM I find slightly more bearable: 'ProvHerbs' had me chuckling.) But good or bad, they are parasitic: the FSM display parodies biblical language (the board says: ‘A closed mouth catches no noodly appendages.’ – ProvHerbs 3:27); the Jesus and Mo -well, guess where they got those characters from originally?

In both these cases, it was a case of free speech being invoked to protect mockery. In principle, that's fair enough: mocking someone or something can be a useful exercise. (Perhaps I should feel better about guying the cyber-atheist?) But religion, unlike New Atheism, is essentially a serious exploration of life: Islam and Christianity are thoughtful engagements with humanity in a way that neither Pastafarianism nor the tedious sniggers of Jesus and Mo are. Personally, I don't find it unreasonable that, in certain times and certain places, the seriousness of the public space is protected: we don't allow whoopee cushions to disrupt the Coronation Service and I don't see why (really) we have to allow self-righteous student prigs to go out of their way to offend Muslims in their first few days in the very stressful environment of a new university, or for an aesthetically challenged mound of dry pasta to undermine a crib scene. If there's no principled way of doing this without risking the wider value of free speech, then I guess we have to put up with the irritation. (I frankly can't be bothered to wrestle with the issue at those deeper levels just now.) But let's be clear that it is an irritation and that those atheists who indulge in such things are nuisances rather than the brave defenders of humanity that they seem to see themselves as.

Advent antiphons: O Clavis David

                                                        King David

O Clavis David

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah, xxii, 22:

And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Revelation, iii, 7:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;

Isaiah, xlii, 7:

To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.


(For explanation, see here.)

Thursday 19 December 2013

Advent antiphons: O Radix Jesse


O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Isaiah xi, 10:

And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.

Revelation, xxii, 16:

I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.

(For explanation, see here.)

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Advent antiphons: O Adonai

                                                    God the Father

O Adonai

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Exodus iii, 14:

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

John, viii, 58:

Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.


(For explanation, see here.) 

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Advent antiphons: O sapientia


In the last days of Advent, I shall be posting the  'O Antiphons' daily in their translation from the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham,  together with relevant passages of Scripture from the King James Version. (Scripture readings suggested by Daniels' 'The Prayer Book Its History, Language and Content.') I hope this will both contribute to our preparation for Christmas and be an exercise in the use of the Anglican Patrimony.

O Sapientia:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Ecclesiasticus, xxiv. 3:

He will hide his words for a time, and the lips of many shall declare his wisdom.

Wisdom of Solomon, viii, 1:

Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things.

1 Corinthians, i, 24:

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Proverbs i-ix:

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel;
To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding;
To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity;
To give subtlety to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:
To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:
For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.


Sunday 15 December 2013

Sexual reproduction in pre-Christian thought

Another example of homophobic haters rejecting equal marriage

Still reading Foucault, and came across this:

Galen's analysis concerning the aphrodisia are situated within the ancient thematic of the relations between death, immortality, and reproduction. For him as for a whole philosophical tradition, the necessity of the division of the sexes, the intensity of their mutual attraction, and the possibility of generation are rooted in the lack of eternity.[ Care of the Self: part IV ch1]

Further evidence of this can be found in Aristotle:

every living thing is meant by nature to go through a cycle of growth, activity in its prime, and decay leading to death. The teleological, cosmological explanation of this is that everything aims to imitate the Prime Mover in its eternal felicity insofar as it is able; but no composite, and therefore nothing composed of body and soul, can remain in existence as an individual for ever. Yet composite things can exist without end as a species ('numerically mortal but generically immortal'), thus individuals in a species of living things are meant to succeed one another in an endless cycle.[Here.]

Catholicism is familiar with the idea that sex (both in terms of the activity and the genders) has theological implications from Von Balthasar and the Theology of the Body. But both Galen and Aristotle remind us that the general sense that sex has (roughly) transcendent implications was spotted without revelation. Even in post-Christian culture, we have (eg) alchemy, Schopenhauer and D.H. Lawrence regarding sex (and the differences between the sexes) as somehow having cosmic significance without reference to specifically Christian beliefs.

Whether you regard such views as rooted in the hardwiring of the universe, or as part of that imaginative Lebenswelt which has been formed by Western culture, the gradual erosion of that heterosexual gaze in favour of a homosexual one which downplays the importance of those sexual differences is at least a profound change and, from a Catholic perspective, a profound loss. It's interesting that La Manif pour tous -the French organization which campaigned against the introduction of same sex 'marriage'- now seems to have switched its attention to 'Gender Ideology', or the ideological downplaying of the differences between the sexes.

Not much sign of that in Scotland, of course...

Thursday 12 December 2013

Combox arguments and changes in perspective

                                               Is it a duck or a rabbit? (Is it edible?)

Wittgenstein's use of the duck-rabbit to illuminate the idea of 'seeing-as' popped back into my head after another one of those slugging matches in a combox.

One of the problems in asserting the importance of a natural law perspective on morality, or more broadly, the importance of philosophy and reason in religion, is that you are faced with the inevitable fact that you can't usually convince people. So, in my last outing, however many cogent arguments I can put against consequentialism as a moral approach, I didn't end up convincing my opponent. (It's in the combox here in the Catholic Herald if you can be bothered.)

The temptation here goes one of two ways. First, there is fideism. If natural reason doesn't work, it's because the idea of a reason detached from revelation is incoherent. (It's an issue that occurs regularly in Ed Feser's blog, its last outing here.) Second, there is New Atheist rationalism: 'if you can't prove I'm wrong, that's because you're a sky-fairy-worshipping-irrationalist and I'm not.'

Now, fideism has at least one thing right. Without revelation, we cannot attain full knowledge, either because (as in our supernatural end of the Beatific Vision) we can't know about it unless we're told; or (as in understanding our natural end of virtuous living in this life) we're liable to go wrong due to our imperfections. So it's perfectly true that Catholic ethics are dependent, to some extent at least, on accepting magisterial authority and teaching. However, it isn't true to say that natural reason can't do something on its own. Well, what is that something?

The 'New Atheist rationalism' assumes that philosophical arguments are short and sweet: if an argument isn't short and sweet and definitely conclusive, it's a sign of irrationality. But a moment's thought indicates that, so far as the humanities are concerned, there are precious few short and sweet arguments. So, for example, it simply isn't true that consequentialism (of any sort) is universally (or even predominantly) accepted by (even non-religious) philosophers as the obviously correct way of doing ethics.* Those familiar with the debates (try here) realize that, whatever their own views, there is nothing of a consensus on this. So, absent revelation, ethics (and other aspects of philosophy) tend to result in long, difficult discussions without any apparent conclusion. That doesn't make them useless. As Rosalind Hursthouse puts it in explaining why she became a vegetarian:

...rational argument has an important part to play, and is sometimes decisive in changing people's minds -but sometimes what is needed to bring about change is rational argument aided by a shift of moral vision.

This is what happened to me....I was not converted to vegetarianism by Singer's and Regan's arguments, but by reading someone else  [Stephen R. L. Clark]....Reading his characterizations of the attitudes embodied in what was, at the time, my own view, and, over quite a long period, absorbing them, gradually changed the way I saw things, in particular, my own actions. I began to see those that related to my conception of flesh-foods as unnecessary, greedy, self-indulgent, childish, my attitude to shopping and cooking in order to produce lavish dinner parties as parochial, gross, even dissolute....Without thinking that animals had rights, I began to see both the wild ones and the ones we usually eat, as having lives of their own, which they should be left to enjoy. And so I changed. My perception of the moral landscape and where I and the other animals were situated in it shifted. [Here.]

That sort of shifting in perspective, slow, gradual in build up, but sometimes sudden in that final shift from seeing something one way to seeing it in another, is part of what can sometimes be achieved by rational argument. To do that requires the sort of personal purification that Platonism emphasizes: to be open to a change in view requires a certain sort of character, one that smugness, impatience and pride can prevent.

I confess I find it sometimes difficult to walk away from what is obviously an impossible debate. Partly, it is hope: just one more turn around the block and then you'll have made your point irresistibly and your opponent will cave in. (And, of course, rarely, that does happen which makes it all the more enticing a prospect.) And honesty compels a certain suspicion of humiliation: it is almost certain that you could have argued better -or, even more worryingly, that someone else could have argued better- and you want to make up for that and get it just right.

Reason without revelation is not useless, but it is incomplete. Equally, revelation without a world in which it is revealed and which provides a context for it, is incomplete. A realistic acknowledgement of the limitations of rational discussion, particularly in the diminished form of the combox, shouldn't lead to the conclusion that it is useless. If someone says it's a duck enough times, eventually, it's possible that you'll be able to see it. (But not of course eat it.)

* The statistics from the PhilPapers survey of professional philosophers are:

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?

Other 301 / 931 (32.3%)
Accept or lean toward: deontology 241 / 931 (25.9%)
Accept or lean toward: consequentialism 220 / 931 (23.6%)
Accept or lean toward: virtue ethics 169 / 931 (18.2%)

Monday 9 December 2013

Secularism and Christmas

                                          What's this got to do with Christmas?

Whatever the liturgical calendar says, in cultural reality, we're slap bang in the middle of the Christmas season. And that means, for parents, trooping around end of year concerts. (All of which, in case any of my children are reading this, are extremely enjoyable!)

This must be a tough time if your a secularist. Well, not necessarily, I suppose. Since 'secularism' is incredibly ill defined, I suppose you could be one of those very religious Christians who just believe in some sort of exclusion of religion from the public sphere that the various secularist clubs always boast of having as members. But judging from Secular Scotland's twitter stream and website, most of its members regard religion as a bad thing, and that's why they want to drive it out of the public world.

I had a slight epiphany reading Jacques Berlinerblau's article (reblogged here by the New Oxonian):

My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion. If permitted to find their voice (and if ever approached by the media) I think they would not express a desire for religion to disappear but aspire for a much more modest goal: freedom from religion.

It's probably symptomatic of my dumbness, but I hadn't thought of secularism like this before. I'd tended either to take seriously their claims that they were only interested in separating religion and the state (in which case I was very much underwhelmed by the quality of their arguments); or I assumed that 'secularism' is simply one of the public faces of New Atheism and their real aim is to make religion disappear (and although I still think this sums up most of the reality of the secularist clubs, it doesn't quite do them justice). But if you just think of your common-or-garden atheist or agnostic, they probably just don't want to be bothered with religion: they want to be free from it in the same way as I would like to be free from chuggers or 'Ted' phoning from some call centre in India to try to get me to change energy suppliers.

However, there is a problem, and it's a problem which explains much of the inherent inconsistency in secularism. To say ' I wish to be free from x' can cover a seriously political point about not wanting to have my life and death determined by x, or it can cover the trivial point of never having to brush up against x. Atheists have a perfectly good point in arguing that they don't want to have their life and death determined by Christianity; they have rather a worse point in arguing that they don't want to brush up against Christianity.

Take for example the 'Secular Charter' which forms part of the Constitution of Secular Scotland:

f) Religion plays no role in state-funded education, whether through religious affiliation, organised worship, religious instruction, pupil selection or employment discrimination.

g) The state does not engage in, fund or promote religious activities or practices.

If we are to take 'no role' or 'religious activity' strictly, then most of Western classical choral music is ruled out. Now, at least some of the concerts I have (and will) attend consist pretty much of Christian material: Masses, carols etc. If we are to take the Secular Charter at its word, then none of this should be financed by the state. Now, I suspect that, for at least the less lunatic among secularists, such performances of art music, even if Christian, are not that problematic. But if they are not problematic, it isn't because of any principle, but simply because they are willing to tolerate this in a way that they apparently are not willing to tolerate the equally harmless 'time for reflection': we are at the mercy of a fairly fluid and arbitrary sensibility here rather than any firm principled distinction between 'time for reflection' and singing the Creed.

One of the side effects of this deep rooted indeterminacy at the heart of 'wanting to be free from religion' is that it is my impression that non-Catholic state schools shy away from overtly Christian material in musical performance. Part of this is undoubtedly due to a general shying away from classical music in state schools. (But then that too is part of a cultural suspicion of anything written by dead white Christian men.) In any case, while voluntary choirs and private schools get to grips with the glories of the Western European musical canon -which is, with apologies to Secular Scotland, a predominantly Christian canon- non-denominational State schools are left with the occasional carol, and the fear that, when the wind blows again, some nutty secularist parent will be on the phone complaining that their precious darling is being brainwashed by having to sing about the Nativity.

Perhaps in a few years time, school choirs will be reduced to singing versions of The Killers' Don't Shoot Me Santa Claus. I think that's safely secularist enough:

Thursday 5 December 2013

The Family Consultation again

                                Did Socrates contribute to the Vatican consultation?

The consultation -at least in the two largest dioceses in Scotland- appears to be still open. Glasgow has its questionnaire up until 10 December (here) and St Andrews and Edinburgh until 15 December (here). (What's happening elsewhere in Scotland?? I'd advise other Scots Catholics to submit responses via one of the above routes if you don't think your voice is going to be heard otherwise. Glasgow's online questionnaire is probably the most straightforward.)

I think I've done all I can do now: attended the parish discussion group, sent in a response, blogged. In my original post on this (original post here, follow up here) I linked this specifically Catholic consultation with Gerry Hassan's constant plea for a deeper set of conversations about what sort of Scotland we would like to see. Now the dust is settling a bit on the substance of the consultation (and remember kids, the correct answer is 'show lots and lots of compassion but don't change the teaching -just explain it better') I'd like to turn back a little to the process.

Václav Havel in his essay 'The power of the powerless' and elsewhere makes a great deal of the way in which (most obviously in totalitarian societies but more generally in modernity) we fail to live truthfully, going through the motions in order to live a quiet life:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. 

This 'ideology' isn't just a system of ideas, but a set of practices, such as the greengrocer who displays the sign, 'Workers of the world, unite!' with a complete indifference to its actual meaning. I rather feel like this about the consultation. I have taken part as honestly as I can. But frankly I don't think it's going to make any difference, not because the Catholic Church is a Stalinist organization which will ignore all democratic voices (it isn't), but because it is a Church of one billion people most of whom are appalling ignorant about theology and philosophy. Even if we were one billion Thomas Aquinases, I don't know how the consultation would work: there are just too many people responding in too many different types of way for it to provide clear results. Given that most people replying will have no deeper understanding of what they are commenting on, the results must be even more dubious.

I came away from the Parish meeting both cheered and depressed. Cheered because I was reminded just what decent people most Catholics are. All of us were acutely conscious of our own failings. All of us were focused on serving God better. All of us took it seriously and let others have their say. That was the plus side and it is a big plus side: the Church is a good place to live in and (Dawkins, stop sniggering at the back!) to bring up children in. But in terms of the substance of what was said, it was a bit depressing. I'm not so much talking about the lack of clarity on teaching or confusion about what to do with it -anyone who's tried to discuss moral philosophy with non-professionals is familiar with that mixture of goodwill but hopeless intellectual naivety- and I think we're all aware of the state of catechesis since the sixties. But given it was a consultation, it's very hard to see what our Parish priest is going to feed back: I came away not even sure that I'd made my points as clearly as they might be made given the format of the discussion; I had little sense of what might be made of the rest of the contributions.

And when you add in the distortions of questionnaires that are anonymous and can be filled in by anyone (Dawkinsians, whatever), the likelihood that only the motivated will contribute etc etc, there's a horrible and familiar feeling of going through the motions which is familiar to all of us from the modern apparatus of elections, personnel assessments and so on, that Havel is gesturing towards.

There's far too much to say here to say it. But one of the problems with the current process -and this applies to Hassan's 'conversation' as much as to the Vatican consultation - is an absence of a Socrates: someone who does have the authority of intellect (or as Socrates might put it, a 'daimon') and who uses it to probe and test. Too much of the Scottish 'imagining' of a better nation is done within the slush of a progressive consensus; too little real intellectual horsepower is brought in to stamp some shape onto this prima materia. (Much has been made of the good quality of the debate on same sex 'marriage' in the Scottish Parliament. And yet nothing was said to connect up the question with a hinterland of ideas, nothing that suggests -as is at least sometimes the case in France- that there is an awareness of how the issue of same sex 'marriage' joins up with deeper questions about the relationship between the sexes and human identity.)

And in the Vatican consultation, the laity speak, express their experience, but, at least for the moment, there is nothing of that testing of that raw experience by the voice of the divine, God as that Spirit above all daimones, which forces us to stop living on the surface and actually to dive into that deeper engagement with truth.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Margo MacDonald and euthanasia

Though with the death of a gladiator the bizarre and exotic show was not yet over. 
Two strange characters would enter the arena in one of the intervals, by which time several corpses might litter the floor. One was dressed as Hermes and carried a red-hot wand with which he would prod the corpses on the ground. The second man was dressed as Charon, the ferryman of the dead. He bore with him a large mallet, which he would smash onto the skulls of the dead. Once again these actions were symbolical. [Here]

I had been settling down to read the Scottish Government's White Paper on Independence (600+ pages) , as well as the Pope's Evangelii Gaudium (200+ pages). But Lallands Peat Worrier's post on Margo MacDonald's new euthanasia bill (PDF) dragged me away from this inviting Yuletide prospect...

MacDonald has returned to her attempt to introduce euthanasia into Scotland. Although it certainly isn't the same Bill as the one that was overwhelmingly defeated before, the issues are substantially the same: sicut canis qui revertitur ad vomitum suum sic inprudens qui iterat stultitiam suam.

Doubtless we'll be returning to this over and over again from different angles, but it's important to get at least some of the opening shots out of the way before sheer weariness at MacDonald's persistence sets in and MSPs are tempted to convince themselves that something very different is on offer here from the previous Bill. The Policy Memorandum (PDF) suggests that there are three main differences from the previous Bill:

12. While the current Bill builds on the work done in relation to the previous one, the policy 
has also been substantially developed.
13. In particular, the current Bill limits eligibility to those with an illness that is, for them, 
terminal or life-shortening or a condition that is, for them, progressive and either terminal or lifeshortening – but does not also include those who are permanently physically incapacitated, thus addressing concerns (disputed at the time by the member) that the previous Bill inappropriately targeted disabled people.
14. In addition, the current Bill is clear that the assistance it authorises does not include any 
form of euthanasia  – thus addressing a specific concern that the previous Bill would have 
authorised some forms of voluntary euthanasia in addition to assisted suicide.
15. The process that a person must go through has also been amended, removing some 
overly-complex aspects, while at the same time enhancing overall the set of safeguards it 
provides.  The main changes are the requirement for a preliminary declaration to be made before a first request, and provision for the training and licensing of facilitators, able to provide some of the practical assistance likely to be required.

To summarize the claimed changes:

1) Only those with life shortening conditions are included. (So not the disabled without shortening of life.)
2) No euthanasia.
3) Simplifying and enhancing process.

Some brief initial responses:

1) Many disabilities also shorten life. That some disabled people will be excluded from the new Bill who would have been included in the previous one does not remove the problem that disabled groups objected to: 'that certain people with disabilities would have been eligible for end-of-life assistance simply by virtue of being disabled, and that this stigmatised such people as having lives not worth living' (para 29, Policy Memorandum). Have a condition that shortens your life by a day (ibid, para 30), and you'll be eligible. (Watch out HIV sufferers and paraplegics.)

2) The Bill (section 18) states:

 Nature of assistance: no euthanasia etc.

(1) Nothing in this Act authorises anyone to do anything that itself causes another person’s death.

This section seems to be referred to in the Policy Memorandum:

14. In addition, the current Bill is clear that the assistance it authorises does not include any 
form of euthanasia  – thus addressing a specific concern that the previous Bill would have 
authorised some forms of voluntary euthanasia in addition to assisted suicide.

This seems to be mere puff without substance. Firstly, the concept of  'euthanasia' is not always distinguished from assisted suicide as noted by MacDonald herself in her evidence to the Parliamentary Committee respecting her previous attempt:

That is why, when we were drawing up the bill, it was difficult to decide whether to use the word "euthanasia". This might be entirely personal, but I maintain that euthanasia is associated with someone else taking the decision, rather than the requesting patient. I accept that some people think that, in the final analysis, it is euthanasia if the requesting patient cannot self-administer the drug and a clinician gives assistance at the very end.

Professor Laurie (Medical Jurisprudence, University of Edinburgh) in his evidence  (col 88) to that committee noted, concerning the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia, that, 'From a principle point of view, it is difficult to draw the distinction.'

Laurence Hinman (a Professor of Philosophy at San Diego University) in his presentation on euthanasia (here, slide 18) includes assisted suicide in the category of 'active, assisted euthanasia'.

Now, my point here isn't that some rough distinction can't and hasn't been drawn between euthanasia and assisted suicide, but that, as a matter of principle, the distinction is quite hard to draw and even harder to draw in terms of a moral difference: simply announcing that the Bill doesn't cover euthanasia means nothing except as a branding exercise to make it sound nicer. The substance of the claim must rest on the gloss 'Nothing in this Act authorises anyone to do anything that itself causes another person’s death'. But here, we are simply faced with more philosophical fog. The precise role of the 'licensed facilitator' is

to provide, before, during and after the act of suicide (or attempted suicide) by the 
person for whom the facilitator is acting, such practical assistance as the person 
reasonably requests (section 19).

At one extreme -the paradigm of assisted suicide I suppose- we can imagine the licensed facilitator getting on with her knitting while 'the person' takes the pills. At the other extreme -the euthanasia end- we can imagine a Kervorkian machine. As it stands, the Bill is not clear that such a paradigm case of euthanasia is in fact ruled out. (It certainly doesn't seem to be by section 18 (3):That requirement is that the cause of the other person’s death must be (or, in the case of an attempt, would have been) that person’s own deliberate act.) Any assistance is part of the causal chain of another person's death: the question is what sort of causal intervention is acceptable, first, in terms of the Bill and, perhaps more importantly, morally. Despite all the sweet words, this is still a Bill about helping people to die.

3) MacDonald claims the Bill simplifies and enhances the process of (what I shall persist in calling) euthanasia. Her own description of these changes (in the Policy Memorandum, section 15) is:

The main changes are the requirement for a preliminary declaration to be made before 
a first request, and provision for the training and licensing of facilitators, able to provide some of the practical assistance likely to be required.

Frankly, the preliminary declaration isn't worth the paper it'll be written on. Its claimed value is that

anyone who is opposed in principle to the idea of assisted suicide can take reassurance from the fact that simply by never making a preliminary declaration they can disqualify themselves 
entirely from the process. (PM, section 23.)

Well, no one ever thought that you'd be bumped off without having signed some bit of paper first: the worry was that, in the process leading up to that signing, pressure (eg from a cash strapped NHS and a medical profession increasingly trained to regard killing as a suitable treatment) would lead to that signature being made. Nothing in the Bill changes these worries. At most, it delays death by a seven day cooling off period  (section 8 (3) (c)).

And as far as the 'licensed facilitators' are concerned, other than providing for some sort of Chartered Institute of Death (section 22), we don't learn much of any substance other than we seem to be creating a new sort of job opportunity for 16 years olds (section 21 (2)) who don't fancy supermarket checkouts.

Nothing of substance has changed in MacDonald's new Bill. Whatever the theatrical setting, this is still the moral equivalent of bumping off the sick with Charon's mallet. I've gone on about this before and doubtless I'll go on about it again, but it never ceases to amaze me that a campaign which so much emphasizes 'dignity' and 'autonomy' seems blithely unconcerned about setting up a bureaucratic monstrosity which allows people to be put down. That's symbolic of much that is rotten in the modern world.

Sunday 1 December 2013

First Day of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham